Recruitment and Retention— The Keys to a Successful Volunteer Organization
by Dustin K. Hunter
Dustin K. Hunter is an assistant editor of The Affiliate and a partner in the firm of Kraft & Hunter LLP in Roswell, New Mexico.
The only way that you can get someone to do something is if they want to do it. That truism was explained by Dale Carnegie in his book How to Win Friends and Influence People. With all due respect to Mr. Carnegie, however, you can do a great deal to influence your organization’s young lawyer members and show them that they not only want to belong to your affiliate organization, but also want to actively participate to make it great.
Recruiting New Members—Less Difficult Than Roping the Wind
Every volunteer organization, including your young lawyer affiliate needs interested, involved, and motivated members to thrive and survive. Whether you believe that you have enough members now or whether you want to grow larger, it is important for your organization to welcome new members on a regular basis. New members typically bring fresh ideas and different perspectives to the organization, which are beneficial on numerous levels. Consequently, bringing in new members to grow the organization or to replace those lost to attrition should be a top priority of your organization.
Contrary to common belief, recruitment is not something that you should do once or twice per year; it should be an ongoing activity. Each project and service of your affiliate should be an opportunity to recruit, retain, and motivate members. For instance, as you implement a particular program or activity, personally ask people to participate and to join your organization. The personal request remains the most powerful and effective recruiting technique in existence. Thus, recruitment for most volunteer organizations works best when you understand that your organization is in effect recruiting each time that its name is published or advertised, each time it performs a service, and each time it undertakes an activity or event in public, not only when it engages in formal recruitment activities.
When you think of recruitment as a continuing and constant process that is applicable not only to potential members but also to your current membership, you will greatly improve your organization. Member recruitment is one of the most commonly cited issues of concern by volunteer managers today. Increasing demand for volunteers from other organizations and the merging of work into our personal lives are all factors that erode many organizations’ ability to rely on volunteers. Although recruiting new members is challenging, it is not hopeless. Volunteers still want to join organizations; you just have to identify who they are and what their needs are so you can keep them motivated members.
Keeping Members Motivated—Easier Than Herding Cats
It is no secret that the greatest asset an organization has is motivated membership. Of course, no switch can be flipped to motivate your members. Motivation comes from within the individual volunteer, but you can seek to understand the things that typically motivate volunteers so that you can meet your members’ needs and they, in turn, will meet the needs of your organization.
Understanding the Psychological Reasons People Volunteer. People volunteer for eight primary reasons: (1) to make a difference in the world, (2) to give something back to the community, (3) to express one’s faith, (4) to achieve personal growth and enhanced self-esteem, (5) to gain professional experience or make contacts, (6) to seek a more balanced life, (7) to meet like-minded people, and (8) to use a special talent or skill.
Many of your members will volunteer to serve and assist with causes that they believe in such as providing legal services to the poor or clothing to the homeless. They believe in the cause and therefore want to have a positive impact. Others may be motivated primarily by the social interaction and association with others in the organization. Still others are motivated primarily by opportunities for growth, both personal and professional, as well as potential leadership opportunities. The opportunity to fulfill these personal needs can be a primary motivator for the volunteer to stay with your organization over time.
As the leader of your affiliate organization, you must recognize these needs and understand how you can use them to attract and keep qualified individuals who will have a positive impact on the organization. For instance, if a member is there to make use of a particular talent or skill, you should identify that skill and use it. Otherwise, the member will become disillusioned with the organization and find an alternate outlet.
Identifying Your Members’ Needs. Because your members are not identical, any one or any combination of the primary motivating factors discussed above could be motivating them. You need to determine what your members motivational factors are; the easiest way to do this is to ask your member. This simple solution is often overlooked as the leadership often tries to guess what the members are thinking and what would motivate them. Moreover, once you ask, keep asking. People and their needs change over time. For instance, consider the situation in which a new member initially joined your organization for social interaction. Having made new friends, the member now wants to grow professionally by taking a leadership role. Your job as a leader is to find this out and use the member to best benefit the organization. In accomplishing this task and keeping an eye on your membership, it might be helpful to appoint someone to the task of monitoring member morale and keeping you and the rest of the leadership informed about its status. Once you begin the process of discovering the needs of your membership, something amazing will happen—because you have shown an interest in them, they will become more motivated to participate actively in your organization.
Employing Motivational Techniques. Recognition, in its various forms, is the primary factor that you have at your disposal to motivate and retain your membership.
  • Provide Constant Feedback. Feedback for your members is absolutely critical. Lack of reinforcement is the number one reason why some members fade into the background and eventually leave an organization. On the other hand, providing information on how the members are doing increases member satisfaction and actually encourages them to work harder and stay motivated.
• Offer Praise and Accolades. Praise has been said to be the psychological equivalent of a salary for your volunteer members. You can provide praise to your members in numerous ways, and most have little or no cost associated with them, so offer accolades often. For instance, you can recognize your members through a public acknowledgment or speech, or you can present them with a certificate or plaque, or maybe even a small gift or trophy. Volunteers must feel that their efforts are appreciated and recognized and must also see results. You should continually strive to recognize your members and the individual and unique contributions they make to your organization.
• Actively Listen to Your Members. Organizations that foster open discussions of their membership have a higher sense of member loyalty and less attrition. Just allowing members to express their individual views is a type of motivation that reinforces the belief and understanding that everyone is important to the organization, not just a chosen few. This is a form of recognition and validates the member’s choice to continue with your organization.
• Ensure That All Members Have the Opportunity to Advance and Be Considered for Leadership Opportunities. Offering leadership opportunities to members is a special form of recognition. It essentially validates the member and instills a sense that the leadership of the organization believes that he or she is worth having as a member and as a peer.
• Promote Sincere Person-to-Person Interaction. Encourage your members to get to know each other. Studies have shown that bonds between members of voluntary organizations keep most volunteer organizations going and keep members returning. The organizations that typically succeed better over time are those in which the bonds between the members of the organization are sufficiently strong to motivate the members to see each other outside of formal organizational meetings. If your members like each other on a personal level and look forward to getting to see each other, they will remain motivated and committed to the organization. Moreover, encouraging your membership to get to know each other on a personal level can actually relieve you, the leader, of some of the responsibility of making new members and volunteers feel welcome.
Additional information and tips on motivating your affiliate organization can be found at www.abanet.
Ten-Second Overview: Recruiting Techniques
• Identify potential members.
• Treat recruitment as an ongoing activity.
• Personally invite new members to join your organization.
• Welcome new members after they join.
Ten-Second Overview: Motivating Techniques
• Understand why your members have volunteered.
• Identify and attempt to meet your members needs.
• Recognize your members and their individual contributions.
• Listen to your members.
• Provide leadership opportunities to members.
For More Information . . .
Valerie Brown, How to Motivate Busy People to Volunteer, Bar Executive (Winter 2002), available at .
Dale Carnegie, How to Win Friends and Influence People (Pocket Books 1998).
Susan J. Ellis, The Volunteer Recruitment Book (Energize, Inc. 1996).
A. H. Maslow, Motivation and Personality (Harper & Row, Inc. 1970).
Mary Merrill, Understanding Volunteer Motivations, Sept. 27, 2005.
Mary Riley, Gilda Schott & Joanne Schultinik, Determining Volunteer Motivations—A Key to Success (Michigan State University Extension 2001), available at
Dr. Jean Rhodes, Strategies for Recruiting and Retaining Volunteers, From Intention to Action: Strategies for Recruiting and Retaining Today’s Volunteers.
EPA, Recruiting, Training and Retaining Volunteers, Methods Manual ch. 4, at 4-2, A.
Judy Taggart, Motivation and Leadership, AGDex 1926-40 (rev’d 1999).
Sara Wedeman, Ph.D, Community as a Driver for Organizational Success, J. Ass’n Leadership (Winter 2006).